PLANO, Texas — If you have ever watched Michael Irvin do his very public business, you know he€™s never needed a megaphone. On television or radio or simply chatting in an otherwise quiet restaurant, his volume is set on high.
Want an autograph, a photo, a quick lecture on responsibility or a sermon on redemption, Irvin, who maintains he has seen the light, is more than willing to share. Heâ€™s a one-man pep rally, self-help guru and revival-tent preacher.
When he helped the Cowboys return to Super Bowl glory in the early 1990s, the pass-catching tripletâ€™s voice was the loudest on the mountaintop. He was an unquestioned locker room leader.
But here, he is different. Here, he yearns for privacy. He sits alone, isolated by choice, hoping to go unbothered in a crowd of football enthusiasts, most of whom have worshiped at the Cowboys alter.
Here, he eschews center stage in the more inviting seats that look down on midfield to instead sit stoically behind a video camera, 25 hard metal-bleacher rows off to the side.
His camera’s audio is off. Always. He wants no recording of his mutterings. Such is a wise course of action for any father taping his child’s games for future joint analysis.
Like so many other Cowboys of his generation, Michael Irvin is a football dad. He has come to Prestonwood Christian Academyâ€™s stadium this Friday night to watch his son play. The son, also Michael, is a 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior wide receiver wearing the familiar No. 88.
The father, whose broadcasting work takes him around the country, has made it a habit to try to never miss a game between airport hops. Fly in Fridays; fly out Saturdays. Always at home games, he sits in this same lonely row.
When he arrived this night, the Playmaker came with the same Friday night frights he feels every game. Itâ€™s the same baggage his Cowboys contemporaries carry. They love the game that has brought them glory and riches beyond their wildest expectations. They are supportive of their sons playing but know all too well the damage it can wreak.
â€œIâ€™m scared for him,â€ Irvin says mid-game while the Prestonwood offense rests on the sideline.
Scared that his oldest son might run the wrong play? Miss a block? Drop a key pass?
â€œNervous for that,â€ the father admits, his volume dropping by the syllable.
Ah, the old feelings the father felt in his own high school days in South Florida, at the University of Miami and his Pro Football Hall of Fame seasons with the Cowboys?
Irvin sits up straight, stares at the cameraâ€™s viewfinder, refocuses the lens on No. 88 on an offense returning to the field and allows his voice to fall to almost a whisper. Here is a Michael Irvin few have heard.
Here Irvin speaks for a generation of Cowboys, who could afford to fear nothing on their way to winning Super Bowls but now worry on the sidelines.
â€œScared he might get hurt because there are no feelings like the feelings a parent has for a son,â€ he explained before returning to muttering through the offensive series.
Michael Irvinâ€™s final play as a Cowboy remains etched in his memory. In his 168th NFL game, on a wet, dreary Philadelphia afternoon in October 1999, he caught an 8-yard slant pass from Troy Aikman.
It was Irvinâ€™s first reception of the game, his 10th of the season, the 750th of his Cowboys career.
As he latched on to that first-quarter pass, having run his signature route surrounded by defenders, Irvin could have no idea it would be his last.
As he tried to avoid an incoming defensive back, he went down head first into a concrete-like artificial slab of Veterans Stadium turf.
The Eagles crowd cheered his misfortune. Teammates prayed. Irvin didnâ€™t know what to think as he lay motionless on the field for almost 20 minutes. Finally, he was carried off on a stretcher and taken to a Philadelphia hospital with damage to his vertebrae. Sandy, his wife, was at his side. She cried all the way to the hospital.
In the blink of an eye, Michael Irvinâ€™s career was finished. The doctors told him it would be too dangerous to try to play again. He was 33.
He calls the play â€œthe last act.â€ But it hardly overshadowed his career.
â€œMy memories of playing football are much better than that,â€ he said.
He cited the camaraderie. The life lessons. The glitz, glamor and the money.
How could he possibly deny his son Michael and his second son, Elijah, a sophomore reserve running back at Prestonwood, the opportunity to make memories of their own?
Sandy Irvin wanted her sons to play basketball and wasnâ€™t shy about making her feelings known.
Her son Michael listened to her concerns.
â€œBut we are a football family,â€ son told mother.
Standing off to the side, his father couldnâ€™t help but smile.
â€œThatâ€™s my boy,â€ Michael Irvin thought.
The father said he always looked for ways to be more physical during his playing days.
â€œI used to put my head down and try to use it as a weapon,â€ Irvin said. â€œI loved to hit before I was hit.â€
That is not the lesson he has passed on.
â€œWeâ€™ve learned so much about the danger of doing something like that,â€ he said. â€œThe game is changing. The rules are changing. Itâ€™s a smarter game.â€
To ensure his sons hear him, he has enlisted others to relay the same message.
Irvin has a wide network of friends he has leaned on, including ex-teammates. Among the friends is Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
â€œItâ€™s like all fathers and sons,â€ Irvin said. â€œI can say something to my son 1,000 times, but as soon as Larry says the same thing, the light bulb goes off.â€
The Irvin men spend summers at Fitzgeraldâ€™s camp.
â€œI tell Larry. Larry tells Michael. Itâ€™s all good,â€ the father said.
Six games into the 1989 season, his second with the Cowboys, Irvinâ€™s left knee exploded as his right anterior cruciate ligament was torn apart. His season was over. At age 23, he thought his career might be over as well.
The 15th of 17 children who grew up in a blue-collar rooferâ€™s home, he was unsure what future life held.
He poured every ounce of his strength in rehabilitating the knee.
â€œThat was the only time I was anything close to scared in football,â€ he said. â€œThat I wouldnâ€™t be able to play.â€
He is unsure how his children might react in a similar situation.
â€œI donâ€™t know if my kids or any playersâ€™ kids, with all they have, could have such a hunger for the game.
â€œBut in the end, it doesnâ€™t matter,â€ Irvin concluded. â€œIâ€™ve always told my boys that whatever they decided is that important to them we will work toward that.
â€œThatâ€™s what any father would do.â€